Three weeks in, and I have no idea what to make of the Big Ten conference in 2011 so far. There's one, maybe two clear cut teams at the top; one, maybe two clear cut teams at the bottom, and a lot of stuff in the middle that could go in one of several directions.
In between Wisconsin (or Nebraska) and Indiana (or Minnesota) I have no idea what's in store for the Big Ten as we head towards conference play. You can look at one of any three teams in each division that might end up in Indianapolis...or miss a bowl game completely. There's one more week of non-conference games to help make some sense of what we're watching, but I don't think it will matter.
It's chaos, disorder, and unpredictability...and I love it.
Kneejerk observations, after the jump.
Michigan 31, Eastern Michigan 3. I probably come off as a Michigan hater on this site, seeing as how I crack on them a lot and I'm an OSU fan. I mean I am and all, but I try to be as neutral as possible when I write a front page post, and I think Brady Hoke has Michigan on the right track. Denard Robinson is an electrifying athlete, but that said, I am not impressed with his ability as a passer. Michigan won convincingly against EMU, and Robinson had a great day rushing (almost 200 yards)...but he was only 7/18 passing the ball. This feels a lot like Michigan in 2010--start out strong, but when Michigan ran into defenses that could neutralize his ability to run, UM's offense was just okay, and their defense couldn't stop anyone. And I saw nothing Saturday that makes me believe otherwise. Fix that, and they can win 10 games. Don't fix it, they win maybe 7. Give me a complete win, and I can buy into the hype.
Penn State 14, Temple 10. A win is a win, so hat's off. But Penn State shouldn't struggle with a Temple program that lost the best coach they've ever had. Neither Robert Bolden or Matt McGloin look like big time college quarterbacks, but PSU's defense was impressive. So where does that leave them? Somewhere between 6 and 9 wins.
Iowa 31, Pitt 27. About halfway through the third quarter, I had written Iowa off as a 5 win team. The ISU loss looked like the norm, and not an aberration, but then something funny happened on the way to Iowa missing a bowl game. James Vandenberg lit it up in the fourth quarter, Iowa scored 21 points, and the defense made key stops, to include a game clinching interception. So who is Iowa in 2011, the ISU and three quarters of the Pitt game, or the fourth quarter, come from behind and beat Pitt team? 5 wins is possible...but so is 8, maybe even 9.
Purdue 59, SEMO 0. Last week Purdue looked like the worst team in the Big Ten, and this week they end up being one of the few Big Ten teams that were able to dominate a lesser opponent on their non-conference schedule. They tossed their first shutout since 2004, the offense was crisp in both running and passing the ball, and lo and behold Purdue is 2-1. Play like this, Purdue can get to 6 wins and a bowl. Will they?
Indiana 38, South Carolina St 21. This was Kevin Wilson's first win, but was it a statement win? No, I don't think so. They beat a team they should have, but this is a team that still has a long way to go. That said, they have some weapons on offense with Edward Wright-Baker, Demarlo Belcher, and D'Angelo Roberts. With how the rest of the conference is playing, they're not going to be an easy out. I'd say Indiana is the one team you're not going to convince me has a shot at 6 wins, but with the way other teams are playing, who knows what could happen.
Michigan State 13, Notre Dame 31. Sparty, no. Notre Dame did a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and there was never really a point in the game where I thought the Irish weren't in control. MSU really seemed to come out flat, which was puzzling for a team with a lot to prove. They're still one of the top three or four teams in the conference, but are they ready to take the next step? After today, I'd have to say no. When your last three games against good teams (Iowa, Alabama, Notre Dame) are blowouts on the wrong end I can't get on your bandwagon.
Minnesota 29, Miami (OH) 23. That was a solid win for the Gophers. Miami is the defending MAC champion (they beat Jerry Kill's NIU squad last year), Minnesota's defense looked very good in spurts, and MarQueis Gray showed a lot of traits that Denard Robinson has--great athlete, erratic passer, bitchin' dreds. Part of me thinks that you can take that win and the close loss against USC and talk yourself into 6 wins for the Gophers, but then you have to look at that ugly baby the New Mexico State game was, and you talk yourself right back out of that.
Nebraska 51, Washington 38. So Nebraska discovered that if you can score points by the bushel, you'll win a lot. But for some reason, their defense failed them against an average Washington team. If that offense that we saw against the Huskies was the norm and not the exception, and their defense is as good as they usually are, Nebraska is a national championship contender. But is that the real deal offense? You could talk me into it, since they haven't scored under 40 points all year, but their defense is suspect, giving up 29 and now 38 points in consecutive games. If that's the real defense, they're a 9 win team, because they'll run into defenses that can stop Martinez.
Northwestern 14, Army 21. Not sure what to make of the Wildcats. Go on the road and beat Boston College with a backup quarterback, hold Army to under 10 yards passing on the road...and lose. Because you gave up almost 400 on the ground. Northwestern's defense did a good enough job at keeping Army out of the end zone, but gave up a critical TD late. Dan Persa still hasn't played, and even though Army went to a bowl game last year, Northwestern should've still won. 6 wins to 9 wins seems to be their range. At least I think so.
Wisconsin 49, Northern Illinois 7. This is the only team that looks complete in the entire conference. Top to bottom, both sides of the ball, Wisconsin has the ability to dominate just about anyone...as long as they don't kill themselves with penalties. It almost seems nitpicky at this point, because Russell Wilson was the perfect addition at the perfect time, but at some point this year Wisconsin is going to be in a close game, they'll get one of those stupid penalties at the worst time, and it could be the difference between finishing a scoring drive or having to punt. And that could cost them the game. And that would be a damn shame.
Illinois 17, Arizona St 14. I had a feeling that Illinois might be good this year, and this win against a ranked ASU team went a long way in validating that feeling. If you look at the Illini schedule, you can talk yourself into them being undefeated all the way up until the Wisconsin game Nov 19th, which might very well be a showdown for the Leaders division. They've been the most impressive team in the conference not named Wisconsin through three games. They should be favored against everyone save maybe OSU and Michigan, and right now Illinois is better than both of those teams. And look through the Leaders division right now and tell me who's better than them? I'll give you Wisconsin, but I'll take Illinois over everyone else. Get used to Ron Zook as coach of the year talk.
Ohio State 6, Miami (FL) 24. Ohio State fans woke up in unfamiliar territory this morning. Sure, OSU has lost big games before, but there was always a feeling that the team had talented people at key positions, and they'd figure it out. I don't know that you can say that today. The Buckeyes are staring at dropping out of the top 25 for the first time in 7 years, and this was their first non-conference road loss to an unranked team in 23 years. Joe Bauserman looks to be the worst OSU QB in a generation, Braxton MIller is a talented but wide eyed freshman who has a penchant for untimely turnovers, and there is no go to guy on the Buckeye offense right now. The defense is good, but they can't stay on the field at the rate they are and expect to win close games. Luke Fickell looked overmatched as a head coach at times, and when you walk through OSU's schedule, you can see them losing 4 of the next 5 and finish 6-6 or even 5-7, to include an 0-4 conference schedule out of the gate. But, and it's a big but, if they get the QB issues worked out and they can minimize the damage until Boom Herron and Devier Posey return, you can also talk yourself into 9, maybe 10 wins.
So the Big Ten is a big mess. In a nutshell, you've got Wisconsin and everybody else, but they're not necessarily the best team in Leaders division, either. Over in the Legends, you could make a case for 5 of 6 teams making it to the top of the heap.
And conference play hasn't even started yet.